the mundane

I realized that my email this morning may have been misinterpreted because I wrote it so hastily.  I think that the plant work, and Zoe and Katie's work in particular is part of the most profound evolution of the TML's research direction since I started the atelier lab 10 years ago.    As I said to people in a seemingly different line of work -- the lighting group (Morgan Sutherland, Harry Smoak, Navid Navab ... - it is  crucial that we do things step by step, that in fact that we start with the humblest, the most modest, and the most mundane applications of our unusual technical and technological prowess.     The mundane, the everyday is in fact the very heart of  what I am hoping will be the application of the Topological Media Lab's most sophisticated experimental art and philosophy.   As with the use of our Ozone media system to inflect the household halogen lamps, so with the hosting of "ordinary" plants in the lab...   

This work must be more than a few brave words or occasions, it must be the tending of living things week after week by enough of us.    It should be us, not some work-for-hire gardener paid to tend some ornamental plants.  I am vitally interested in experimenting with the sociotechnical ensembles of the TML to find out, because I think our programmers' and media art students' very inattention is itself a microcosmic symptom of the catastrophe that is Technological Progress.   I'm happy to be part of this as much as I can to help launch this and recruit people -- current and future TML people -- with you and Katie.   

I started this conversation with Flower Lunn <> 3 years ago, a wonderfully thoughtful, gentle and determined artist who studied with me as a wise "undergrad" and did her MFA in Fibres.   And later with Josee-Anne Drolet <>, Elena Frantova <> and  Timothy Sutton <>.   It is a risky path because it can make the lab look unflashy, even naive.  It may even bring the lab down in institutional power, which could mean its closure.  But this is the heart of the ethico-asthetic experiment that is the lab itself as a socio-technical organism.

I think that media artists who are in a hurry to make machines sit up and make 3D this or that in OpenGL have a lot to learn from working with earth and vegetal life.   The challenge is how to blend the attention, then the habits of everyday work, across the artists and philosophers hosted here: those who code Max/MSP/Jitter, those who solder, those who handle paper or fibres, those who work earth, and those who work words,...  Laura Boyd-Clowes <> is a word and earth worker, who I value as much as the Ozone creators.   She would be the natural student leader of the philosophical thread intertwined with the living sculpture work.    But she may be too busy to do much this year.  Nonetheless I would invite Laura to come continue the discussions from Spinoza, through Bateson and Guattari in concert with the gardeners and programmers among us.

I'm sorry that now I am (we are all) stretched thin.   But in the end that should not matter because the initiative, the power, authentically can only come from you and friends.     I do hope to be more present in this aspect together with the domestic phenomenological experiments after Dec 3.   I very much appreciate Zoe's careful attention and Zoe and Katie's principled thought behind the work, which will twin together with Jane Tingley and Michal Seta's exquisite work.  I find delightful, for example, the taut lines Zoe pinned neatly across the tops of the earthen bins to train our seedlings, some of whom have sprouted from the sixth generation of morning glories that Josee-Anne tended with so much care and hope, seeded from Flower Lunn circa Remedios Terrarium.

This is part of the story that I tell about the TML when I talk about the future.  We will want to share this also with for example, Lina Dib <>, the anthropologist with whom I am composing an invitation to the TML during the Anthropological Association of America conference Nov 16 - 20 here in Montreal.  

The problem we face as an atelier is that those who are students are fragmented into the classes and the hundreds of distractions that students must entertain.   And those who work or have families to tend have insufficient the energy or time perhaps to tend yet another space full of lives.   But caring for plants is a mark of integrity and depth in an institutional and social field still hurting with postmodernity's flatness and frictionlessness.   I would like to learn how we may collectively conduct philosophically informed creative research over the long term in a way that accommodates students as well as working people, not just those few who happen to be lucky or political enough to be funded by some grant to do just this at the TML.    This may be impossible, but as Badiou may have argued 2000 years after Zhuangzi and Laozi, paradox can be generative.  The plant project is part of this sociotechnical / institutional experiment, and its very mundaneness is our risk, our tactic, and our method.

So, thank you, and let's proceed.
Xin Wei

One who knows does not speak; 
One who speaks does not know.

Block the openings; 
Shut the doors. 
Blunt the sharpness; 
Untangle the knots; 
Soften the glare; 

On Oct 19, 2011, at 2:08 AM, Sha Xin Wei wrote:

Dear Vincent, Adrian,

Thanks a lot for the intros!

The best would be to talk directly with the PLSS vegetal research group.  This year led by Zoe Yuristy.   Last year's Spinoza - Bateson - Guattari reading group was led by Laura Boyd-Clowes.  Now we are doing very very mundane beginning -- just to plant seedlings in fresh dirt, then get humidity sensors to semi-automate the watering system.    Our philosophy seminar is suspended, although that is the most promising in terms of ground-breaking research, we simply are too busy to push that forward for now.  Maybe with your intervention, we can advance the philosophical investigation in a rigorous way!

Natasha Myers @ York University (Toronto) brings together her training as a botanist, and dance, as well as her wok in science & technology studies.    There are fascinating works with plant chemical signals, chemical memory, plant movement + human movement, etc..  She should be part of the more research oriented conversation.

Let me suggest that Adrian make the translations :)  I'll do that too after my deadlines ease up a bit Dec 2.

Xin Wei
On Oct 16, 2011, at 4:28 PM, Julian Vincent wrote:

Well, hi y'all!  Great introduction from Adrian!
Here's a one-pager which summarises the second subject Adrian mentions:  <The selective advantage.doc>.  If the idea has a fault, it's that the model is so strong that it explains too much!  I'm collecting press cuttings, quotations, etc, which is the only way I know to accumulate information in this sort of area.  My ideal would be to interview some practising artists, but I  fancy I need a bit more credibility before I can persuade someone to give me the cash to travel.  Ideally I would interview a couple of dozen of the current top artists (all categories) in the world - maybe more.  If any of you know someone of sufficient standing and compliance who would agree to do it for free, I'd love to run them through the system!  And your comments, too.  At present I'm putting the data into an ontology which is my current way of filing and assembling data.  You can have a copy if you are interested.

The first subject which Adrian mentions requires a bit more background since it's not published and needs some understanding of botany and engineering.  The bending stiffness of a rod depends on the diameter of the rod (or, more generally, the shape and size of its cross section) and the material it's made of.  A small-section rod made of stiff material will bend to the same amount as a large-section rod made of less stiff material.  We were working on tobacco plants which had one of the three pathways producing lignin (= 'wood') downgraded.  In the greenhouse (a wind-free environment) they were trained up pieces of string, and looked exactly the same as the controls which had full lignification.  But the ones with reduced lignin were more floppy (lower bending stiffness).  However, if a plant is stimulated mechanically it tens to stiffen up (thigmomorphogenesis) by changing its dimensions.  We tried this with both normal and downgraded plants and found that they grew differently such that the stem of the more floppy one grew bigger in diameter than the control plant, resulting on both plants having the same bending stiffness.  In other words, they both ended up with the same mechanical properties.  I adduced this to mean that the plant had a 'concept' of how stiff it should be, correcting for and short-comings in the material it's made of,and therefore has a self-image, or is conscious!  I have to admit that this interpretation of a well-known phenomenon was created in order to wrong-foot those who believe that only man is capable of consciousness and self-knowledge, but it also means that, perhaps, one should think a bit more clearly about what consciousness means and how to define it!
The basic data are published and is kosher, but the above argument is not published.

Comments welcome!


On 16 Oct 2011, at 05:06, Adrian Freed wrote:

I would like to introduce you all to Julien Vincent who I met at the the Fiber Society Conference last week.

Julien's work and his interesting peridisciplinary thinking intersects themes of the PLSS project and the TML in general.
Our conversations ventured far and wide but a couple of relevance are: 

1) An ingenious interpretation of a specific plant biomechanics experimental as evidence of plant self identity. I heard about this post-Guiness so perhaps
Julian can refer us to a paper for the details. As you all know I am just an interest tourist when it comes to biology but I keep getting a lot of Julian's field. For example
I used the locomotion of wild wheat awns in a recent paper as an example of entrainment. I suspect there is much in the mechanical aspects of plants to stimulate
discussion of agency at the boundaries of the living/and non living.

2) The following idea of his:
"The selective advantage of art. Art (all varieties) is a safe method of allowing people to rehearse alternative futures. The engagement is to guess what will happen next, which relies on pattern recognition (well known) but demands projection of the pattern into the future (commonly not appreciated). The person who 'knows' what will happen next is the most likely to survive. Therefore art, apparently totally useless in terms of evolutionary advantage and so strangely persistent, appears to have a central role in our survival mechanisms."

As you can imagine this second point has received insensitive resistance from the usual places. Rather than add weight to the obvious critiques I would like us to engage in conversation with Julian
to deepen, broaden and sharpen  this insight of his.

I referred Julian to Lucy Suchman's work on situated action.

Simondon is also  relevant because he uses the language of evolution in considering the evolution of the technical object. 
Heavy-hitting scientists who have considered evolution and social patterning include Varela, 
and for music we have Attali's argument (in Noise) that society tests new technologies first  in music and sound because 
these modailities have fewer material constraints. Andrew Pickering has started to look at art but his early work on this was not met very sympathetically in the DART503 seminar last year.

I am sure some of you biologist/philosophers and artist/biologists have some more useful suggestions for Julian.
Please share them.

Julian knows the RepRap inventor Adrian Bowyer so it might be interesting to share your experience on how the TML plants entrained you to build them a RepRap.

Berlinengineer Sara Reichert für EinsteinsTraum

Sha Xin Wei: PLSS hacking

Date: August 13, 2011 6:56:17 AM EDT

Hi Michal, Hi Morgan,

This is all great -- can't wait ti see the data come trickling into Ozone soon!     But let's design for a world in which we have dense set of sensors, where dense means approximately  continuous in space, time, as well as data-space.   Practically speaking, this means on the order of video density, i.e. tens of millions of channels per unit time.   In the face of such density, it makes sense to use a minimax design tactic:  minimum bandwidth needed to maximally intercalate vegetal / soil activity with social activity.

Another design tactic I would us to try in most of our sensor work is to use a push model instead of regular polling (a pull model).  This means I'd like the sensor to emit data when there is a change above a delta.   Ideally that delta should be tunable by an application programmer.   This means the sensor data should arrive from the analog world with irregular intervals of time.    (Thanks to Joel Ryan and his work with gestural musical sensing.)

Tim and Flower's timelapse data show us that our fastest growing plants -- the morning glories -- had a "frequency"  of about one macroscopic (human legible) cycle of creeper per hour.   (Ask Natasha Myers @ York for a technical term :)    I don't know what the frequency should be, but I would like to work with the lowest possible frequency that we can.

The research challenge is in fact : How can we intercalate the slow rhythms of sidereal and vegetal activity (hour) with human rhythms (second) in a way that is legible to us?

This goes to the heart of the fact most "environmental" sensor art is boring or has the same affect as noise.   Rather than fetishize the boring or noise as aesthetics, let's see what we can do with streams of sparse, irregular sensor data.

Xin Wei 

Morgan Sutherland: PLSS hacking

Date: August 12, 2011 6:25:01 PM EDT

Hey Michal,

On 2011-08-12, at 6:15 PM, Michal Seta wrote:
> I considered multicast but have not yet tried it with the arduino.  It's probably doable...

Probably not worth the time/headache. Should be sufficient to put a sticker with the send/receive IP's on the box and maybe make an API over ethernet where you can change the outbound IP's if it's trivial. 

Not being a plant expert, I don't know what data rate makes sense, once an hour?  I can make it configurable.

At least ten time per second or so, and do make it tunable. No reason to cut bandwidth for no reason – we believe in keeping as much data as possible for as 'long' as it's practical (just don't send at max speed / w/o delays!)

> The recent version of arduino (0022) includes the RawUDP code by Björn Hartmann.

Great, then you're set.

> I know of at least 2 objects for Pd that can handle tcp.  One pair (send/receive) developed at Concordia.

UDP is preferred.

> I can, right now, communicate locally with Pd (in UDP) using static IPs but the system does not rely on this communication to function.  I intend to use Pd to prototype a monitoring and configuration interface.

Great! Thank you. This is a nice surprise for me – I assumed I was going to have to do this in September/October.


Morgan Sutherland: PLSS hacking

Date: August 12, 2011 12:18:04 PM EDT

What I meant to say is that it might be easier to roll your own OSC "library" since making a basic OSC message without timestamps, bundles and wildcards does not require a library to do – it's just a int/float with a string identifier and type tag appended. Like:

oscPacket = sprintf("/path/to, i, %c", number);

I referred you to OSCuino because the functions sendOSCfloats and sendOSCthings will show you how to construct a proper OSC message w/ AVR C. So if the ethernet library is stable, no need to bother with a half-working OSC library on top of it just to do some string formatting!

For future maintenance, I'm of the opinion the things should be kept simple in terms of implementation so that people in the future can figure them out easily rather than simple of interface (which more often then not means complex implementation).

I had a look at the Arduino ethernet library and to my surprise it doesn't support UDP (only TCP). Somebody has written here a modified version that uses UDP: (not sure if you found this already). You can give it a try, but some people have compile errors. The other option would be to find a TCP object fro Pd. Or rather than using Pd, you could write a little Python/Ruby/C script that receives the data and broadcasts it on localhost for Pd or Max to pick up.

All that said, if you can get the OSC library working, then by all means use it. Just trying to make suggestions to make your life easier!

Thanks Michal.

Sha Xin Wei: PLSS hacking

Date: August 12, 2011 11:46:02 AM EDT

Yes, when Michal and I talked, I expressed a preference for an  arduino box that could stand alone on our local Ethernet and send out data without tying up a whole computer (a capital gear overkill vs software library overkill :) 

Sorry it turned out to be on the bleeding edge!   But I look forward to seeing the data available on OSC.  Can it be broadcast to all machines on local net via some usual convention?   I expect the data rate to be very low so this would eat very little bandwidth.

JA watered the plants last week, said they need basic human live attention too.

PLSS will live again!
Xin Wei 

Michal Seta: PLSS hacking

Date: August 12, 2011 11:22:49 AM EDT

Thank you [Morgan] for the pointers on OSC arduino, I had a quick look at both and Adrian's seems like a very cool tool to have in one's toolbox.  However, both of these solutions use serial communication while my understanding is that we want to communicate over the ethernet.  The OSC library I found wraps the ethernet library and adds the OSC protocol.  I do agree that OSC may be an overkill for sending 8 ints around but Xin Wei expressed interest in using OSC.  In the end it all depends on the end-user/maintener who will make use of this and eventually expand on it.  

I could keep it extremely simple and send just an array of 8 ints or some kind of property list or dictionary if that is what you prefer.

Morgan Sutherland: PLSS hacking

Date: August 11, 2011 9:57:36 PM EDT

Just quickly for now, I try to stay away from OSC libraries because OSC is just a (transport agnostic) naming profile and and the libraries are overkill for sending a few floats. You might have better luck sending strings formatted as OSC messages straight over UDP. There should be a library for that shield with a sendUDP() function. Have a look at Adrian's OSCuino and Andrew Bensons OSC Arduino sketches for inspiration. Away from a computer at the moment, so can't check.

Michal Seta: PLSS hacking

On 2011-08-11, at 9:39 PM, Michal Seta wrote:

Here's a little update because I suppose you're back in town.  I have tracked down an OSC library for the ethernet shield which turned out to be a bit of a puzzle (made for an older version of arduino).  I've found an updated fork but with lots of typos/errors that I managed to iron out and made my own fork :
There are still some mysterious issues but I have actually had a successful OSC communication between the arduino and a Pd patch.  I was a bit delayed due to some family distraction and the OSC bugs chase but I am back on the track.  I think that by next week I will heave the thing working.  I will let you know when I am closer to the finish.

Michal Seta: Reproducibility and Monotonicity of sensor systems

On 2011-03-19, at 12:37 PM, Michal Seta wrote:

Thank you all for your comments, this discussion makes it all much clearer for me, especially the role of the LED indicator.  I too believe that the intuitive/social aspect is more appropriate for PLSS.  In any case, I had no intention of interfering with the original goals and philosophy of PLSS but I think I needed a better understanding.  I was under a wrong impression, for instance, that the LED was to serve as a binary indicator.

See my other inline comments below:  

(> blue Morgan, >> red Xin Wei)

On Fri, Mar 18, 2011 at 11:13 PM, Morgan Sutherland <> wrote:

> The ONLY qualities that we should try to guarantee is that, for each given sensor in each given location:

> I think that in addition to these two qualities, we should also do our best to insure that reading the LED's is an unambiguous as possible. This is the argument for using digital – going the analog route, given that we do not have a tremendous amount of expertise or time available, will result in an effectively linear relationship between the output of the sensor (which varies linearly with measured soil humidity) and the brightness of the LED, which leads to a very ambiguous signal.

> I don't think that a reading of only one LED can be unambiguous (unless it is simply a matter of on/off situation which I don't believe is the preferred solution here).  My reading of Xin Wei's comments is that letting the human interpret the LED is part of the equation.


>> This should be MUCH easier to implement, MUCH less work.


> I actually disagree here. I think that passing the sensor values through the microcontroller and back out to the LED's will be slightly more work than making a delicate analog circuit, attaching it to each sensor, and water-proofing it, especially since I think we would need to use an op-amp + a few resistors per sensor. I have aesthetic preference for simple analog solutions vs. verbose digital solutions however.

Am I reading this correctly?  You mean building n copies of analog circuit and water-proofing them is less work than incorporating one more wire into the design and writing one program (with instantiations of 1 class)?  In any case, I am definitely in favor of an elegant analog solution.  Do we actually need an op-amp and a few resistors?  I understand that there is some concern about linear vs. non-linear solution but in the long run, if left to humans, they will learn to interpret the reading regardless of it being linear or not.  I think that a simple solution (LED + resistor) will yield a reliable reading of the soil's humidity.


>> Use analog first.   Digital only when you must, and understand what reductions you are incurring.